Chicago, Illinois, 6/91. Fire in a two-story, 75by 100-foot wood-frame commercial structure. Heavy smoke on arrival. Interior attack was abandoned when the building collapsed—fortunately, all firefighters operating inside escaped entrapment—and the fire was brought under control with a defensive attack.

Photos by Steven Redick.

Collapse should never be a surprise on the fireground. If all are trained and can communicate and if preplan is effective, collapse should be forecast because of the indicators usually present.

In this series of photos, let your imagination run wild. Do you have buildings like these in your district? It’s only a two-story frame structure — the second floor has been wrapped and the first floor usually is the only occupancy. Is that true here? Who knows? It’s not the point. The point is what is usual in buildings that look like this.

What do we see?

  • A well-advanced fire on arrival behind some heavy security. The structure is probably unoccupied and the command function has to be extra alert to switch strategies depending on size-up and feedback.
  • Vertical ventilation is easily accessed, but horizontal support on both the first and second floors will be virtually nonexistent for quite some time.
  • What is the life exposure at fires like this? Sure—the firefighters. While aggressive attack may be initiated, the safety of the firefighter here is paramount.

Collapse indicators on arrival:

  • A well-advanced fire in a frame building.
  • Obvious occupancy change from the original intent of the building. Has there been any major structural weakness because of the change? Is the building designed to hold up what’s in it now?
  • Attack on the fire will be delayed because of security and because of lack of horizontal ventilation assistance. The fire has more time to weaken the structure.
  • Time: How long has the fire been burning? (Not how long since you showed up.)

After a thorough size-up, you prepare for collapse. First, the strategy shift. Get the people out. Here, the firefighters are ordered off the roof and from the interior of the building. What next?

Look at your collapse zone. Set one up. Move personnel and set up a defensive fire attack. Move the apparatus out of the vertical and horizontal collapse zones. Maintain that discipline. It is harder than you think.

Collapse. If you plan for it, it will be a relief on the fireground. The intensity of fire will diminish; the brand problem will be less, and the seat(s) of the fire will be more exposed to attack. You now truly have a rubbish fire and all the time in the world. You planned for it.

Manhattan, New York, 3/91. Multiple alarm fire originating in restaurant cooking equipment on the first floor of six-story commercial structure of ordinary construction. Fire rapidly extended vertically through the duct system to upper-floor occupancies with total involvement of the top floor. A combination of rapidly changing offensive and defensive strategies brought this fire under control within two hours.

Photo by Steve Spak.

Ordering strategy shift is one thing. We discussed the problems with recognition, communication, and discipline. But what of accountability? Do you have a system? Can you account for those working directly with you? For those in your division or your sector? And finally, incident commander, what system is in place for such accountability? Do you have one? If not, get one fast!

Restaurant fires involving ovens or cooking oils are “light case” if automatic fire suppression systems are installed. Then it is usually an operation of checking for extension, evacuation, and dealing with an irate manager who just watched his lunch crowd “beat the checks.”

However, when the cooking establishment is on the first floor of a multistory building, it’s another story. It is usually an exhaustive search for fire, determining not just extension but where it extended and where it will extend next. Manning levels are never enough at fires in structures like this because of lack of preplanning and imagination. Why? The duct system!

Fire, once igniting the duct linings, races vertically and horizontally throughout the structure at will. If we have a schematic of where the duct run is on every floor—a big plus. If we have a fire prevention program in place that checks that filters and dampers and even “run-of-the-duct” suppression nozzles are cleaned and maintained — another big plus.

These buildings in Renaissance American cities usually are a nightmare. The ducts channel their way to the roof vertically and can make the trip through, around, and within virtually any combustible structural component or building feature. The fire in these thin-walled conduits is a Class B flammable liquid fire. It burns rapidly with an extremely hot fire. Conduction causes an almost immediate extension to the combustibles that surround the duct.

Today an air space is mandated around the entire run of ducts. Not so in earlier building conversions, and it certainly is not something that is to be taken for fact in any occupancy.

Put the fire out from below and maybe steam it with water application from above while maintaining control at the base. Next, you must find any and all hot spots along the run of duct. To do that, you need to know the duct’s path —preplan. A tool that has proved its worth at fires in ducts has been the heat detector camera. It can point out trouble spots to open and examine faster than the bare hand of the firefighter can.

Put these restaurants in multistory hotels and high-rise office buildings and you can see what a major problem a simple kitchen fire can cause. Adjust your operating standards accordingly; beef up your fire prevention inspections to include this vital data; work with code officials to assure automatic extinguishment capabilities throughout the run of the duct and not simply the hood over the stove.

Huntington Park, California. An afternoon fire originating in a 50by 100-foot pile of tires outside an industrial facility spread rapidly throughout the yard, releasing large amounts of hydrocarbons into surrounding areas and forcing evacuation of some occupants. Multialarm units from the Los Angeles County Fire Department fought the fire for more than two hours before containing it, but not before three structures were already destroyed by the fastextending tire fire.

Photo by Jeremy Greene.

While not yet America’s most common fire problem, fires in facilities that store used automobile tires are creating enormous regional problems (see “Tires Burning by the Acre,” Fire Engineering, June 1 988). Large fires reaching conflagration proportions have been extremely costly in terms of personnel hours, equipment, radiant heat destruction, personnel injuries, reduced fire protection to the municipality while this rubbish is burning —not to mention the damage to the environment. Fires in California, Colorado, and Pennsylvania have raged for weeks and, in some cases, for months.

The frustration experienced by these firefighters attests to the slow, demanding, and dangerous process the mitigation of this type of fire operation can be. The radiant heat is truly greater than that experienced with other point sources. Inaccessibility is another problem.

As with almost every fire district, the answer to problems such as this lies in recognition, preplan, communication, and, if necessary, litigation. Tires, like all rubbish, are ignored until the piles become offensive by smell, sight, or, in this case, ignition. Illegal storage is a money-maker that must be discovered and halted in all our communities. Legal storage, on the other hand, is another story. The secret of fire control is no different than any other outside storage of combustibles. First is manageable sections and access. Fire roads are cut in our forests and in our junkyards; why not for fires in tire storage? They’re no different. In fact fire roads are even more important in this storage. The fire attack, as with any junk fire, should be aggressive and defensive attack. The exposures should be identified and handled by size-up indicators while the fire is controlled or at least held in check by large-caliber streams from the perimeter —unmanned tower ladders, for example.

As with any petrochemical, water additives will go a long way in early control measures. While costly, imaginative alternative funding measures can be utilized.

As a last thought: recognize and respect. It is a dangerous storage and if ignited, a hazardous material. Respect the fuel and preplan its fight— with the community, the firefighter, and the environment in mind.

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